Monday, 28 July 2014

False declarations of foreign workers' addresses not prevalent: Ministry

THE report ("Errant bosses faking addresses of foreign workers"; Sunday) suggested that the practice of employers falsely declaring their foreign workers' addresses in the Online Foreign Worker Address Service (Ofwas) is widespread.

The report, based on anecdotal feedback from dormitory operators and employers, implied that the well-being of foreign workers is being undermined by this errant practice.

There are indeed instances where employers provide false addresses. Information provided by members of the public will be useful and we will investigate. If found to be true, we will take action and have done so.

However, we do not believe the practice of employers providing false information relating to their workers' accommodation addresses is prevalent.

As stated in the report, the vast majority of the 2,100 employers taken to task for Ofwas-related offences were for failure to update accommodation addresses. This can happen due to administrative lapses when the foreign worker has moved to another accommodation and the employer omits or otherwise fails to notify the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

However, outright false declaration of addresses is a serious offence - errant employers face fines of up to $20,000 and/or up to 24 months' imprisonment for each false declaration. Errant employers may also have their work pass privileges curbed.

A failure of employers to administratively update Ofwas does not necessarily imply that foreign workers are housed in sub-standard conditions.

Purpose-built dormitories are not the only form of approved accommodation. For instance, employers can also house their workers in residential premises, as well as converted industrial premises that meet statutory health and safety requirements for housing purposes.

The MOM regularly inspects foreign worker housing to ensure that standards are acceptable. When these are found wanting, we will take action against employers.

We welcome information from workers, non-governmental organisations and members of the public to assist us in our investigations.

Kevin Teoh
Divisional Director, Foreign Manpower Management Division
Ministry of Manpower
ST Forum, 31 Jul 2014

Errant bosses faking addresses of foreign workers
They state on MOM database the men are in approved housing while putting them up in cheaper places
By Amelia Tan, The Sunday Times, 27 Jul 2014

Errant bosses have been listing false addresses on a Ministry of Manpower (MOM) online database while housing their foreign workers in sub-standard conditions.

They declare that the men are living in approved housing such as purpose-built dormitories, while actually putting them up in cheaper places such as shophouses, factory-converted dorms or construction site quarters. It comes down to money, said Ms Debbie Fordyce, a volunteer at welfare group Transient Workers Count Too.

A place at a dorm, with amenities like mini-marts and basketball courts, costs about $300 a month. But housing workers at construction sites can be free, while a month's stay in a shophouse is about $200.

Industry players who spoke to The Sunday Times said bosses are willing to be dishonest as they know it is difficult for MOM to check.

Short of spot-checks at every dorm, it is hard to verify the addresses of all 771,100 work permit holders, excluding maids who live in their employers' homes.

"How do you even start to check when there are so many places?" said Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics. In recent years, he has seen several workers not living at their registered addresses.

Industry players said bosses have managed to abuse the address registration process because of its ease of use. All they have to do on the Online Foreign Worker Address Service is to log in with their SingPass IDs and passwords, and then key in the addresses and postal codes of their workers' abodes.

The information will be accepted as long as the dorm listed has not reached its maximum occupancy.

One construction boss said the system is so easy to "cheat" that some employers get clerks to key in postal codes of various dorms in the hope of hitting one that is not fully occupied. "It's trial and error. The staff will keep trying until they find one which is not full," he said.

As a result, dorms end up being full according to MOM's database. Bosses who want to legitimately house their workers there cannot register as the website says places are not available.

"We have to wait a few days for the dorm operators to compare their records with MOM and remove the names of bogus workers," he said.

There are no official figures on how many foreign workers have fake addresses. But it runs into the hundreds at least, based on estimates by employers and migrant worker activists.

Industry players admit that this has been happening since the online database for addresses was launched about 10 years ago but did not raise the issue as Singapore has been grappling with a shortage of dorms in recent years. But with more dorms coming up, it is time to tackle the problem, they added.

Last December, the Government announced that the inter-ministerial committee on foreign worker issues headed by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam wants to speed up the building of more dorms. Bosses will be encouraged to house their workers in purpose-built dorms if more are readily available, said those in the sector.

There are currently about 40 commercially run dorms, each housing a few thousand workers. That is enough space for 180,000 foreign workers - about 23 per cent of those here.

Bosses suggest that MOM give deadlines to employers to move workers out of poor housing places to the new dorms when they are ready.

Dorm operators can also help by tallying their records with MOM's. "They can find out who is providing false information once the names don't match," said one employer.

Migrant worker activists said workers must also be encouraged to speak up about poor housing. But many are afraid because they do not want to lose their jobs. This is a sentiment shared by many workers interviewed by The Sunday Times.

Bangladeshi worker Mohd Nasirruddin, who shares a zinc-roof hut with six others at a construction site, said: "It is hot at night. Sometimes I cannot sleep. But it's okay. I want to work and earn money."


About 2,100 employers have been warned or fined by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in the past two years for offences relating to the online system to register foreign worker addresses, said a ministry spokesman.

A dozen employers were charged in court and fined a total of $119,000.

However, The Sunday Times understands that most were taken to task for not updating their workers' addresses and not for false declarations on the Online Foreign Worker Address Service website.

A spokesman said the ministry regularly checks the database for accuracy. He added that employers should not use MOM's online database to check for vacancies in dormitories. Bosses should contact dorm operators directly.

MOM is also working with dorm operators to "better reconcile their tenant records" with the ministry's data.

On the issue of employers facing problems updating their workers' addresses on the website, the spokesman said it may not necessarily be due to false registrations.

Instead, it may be due to other employers having yet to update their workers' addresses after moving out of the dorms, said the spokesman. As a result, the dorms are still full based on MOM records.

"When employers find that they cannot update the addresses... they will be triggered to contact MOM directly and we will facilitate the address update," he said.

Employers who intentionally provide false information of their foreign worker addresses can be fined up to $20,000 and/or jailed two years.

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